Drum Smackdown Watch: Public Funding for the Arts

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Last week I wrote a quick post suggesting that government support for the arts wasn’t exactly on my Top Ten list of great ways to spend public money. I received a scorched-earth response via email from Michael O’Hare, along with some recommended reading material, though in the end the scholarly articles didn’t especially change my mind. But I decided not to blog about it again regardless. Disagreements about public arts policy are deeply rooted in a personal view of the value of certain kinds of high art, and I simply lack a strong enough version of the art gene to talk about this with any vigor or nuance.

Nonetheless, Isaac Butler wants to persuade me that I’m wrong, and he’s writing a three-part blog post to do it. Here’s an excerpt from part two:

Drum’s not saying that art isn’t important which is the common argument that we end up arguing against. What he’s saying is that the market is doing a good enough job of supporting the arts and therefore, government intervention is not needed….In order to support his point about a market breadown, he lumps together broadcasting, “art” (by which I believe he means studio/visual arts) and entertainment. These, he believes, are doing okay, and therefore don’t need government support.

What he leaves out are things like Jazz, “Classical” Music, Theatre, Dance etc. In other words, it may in fact be true that some art forms are supported well by the market. But others are not. Theatre, the one I happen to know the best, is suffering an insane level of market breakdown. It is simply too expensive to make (most) theater to be able to price it accurately. Even now, thanks to lack of support, it is still overpriced in most major markets.

There’s something to this. But since part three is still being incubated, here’s the question I’d like to see answered: how do you know that the market for this kind of art has broken down? The fact that something is expensive and losing popularity doesn’t, by itself, indicate a market breakdown. Just the opposite, in fact: we usually think of market breakdowns in areas where there’s a lot of demand but, for some reason, the market isn’t meeting it.

Now, I, Kevin Drum, happen to like classical music but not jazz. I like film but don’t really get much of a kick out of theater. I love novels but have never developed an appreciation of poetry. Etc. etc. If it turned out that my tastes were broadly shared, would that mean there’s a market breakdown in jazz, theater, and poetry? Or would it mean that public tastes have changed over time and artists ought to change with it? If great playwrights are producing scripts for HBO movies instead of scripts for regional theaters, does that mean the market is working or failing? If serious modern composers produce music that the public has to be bribed to listen to (usually with a post-intermission performance of a popular old warhorse), does that mean there’s a breakdown in the market for serious modern music? Or does it mean that serious modern composers ought to rethink the kind of music they write? How do you know?

In any case, I look forward to part three. I view the decline of live theater with equanimity because I think that modern film, video, and multimedia performances are better than live theater on virtually every level. Obviously Isaac disagrees, and that’s fine. The question is, why should the federal government adjudicate our disagreement?

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